Football: Double-quick United: McClair provides the benchmark as Liverpool's high ambition is curtailed

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The Independent Online
Manchester United. .2

Kanchelskis 61, McClair 73

Liverpool. . . . . .0

Attendance: 43,740

A CHANGE for the better, a change for the worse and Manchester United were fortuitously home, leaving Liverpool with haunting echoes of the start of last season when they took maximum points from their first three games then failed to win a match in September.

United had stuttered and stumbled for an hour, flashes from Eric Cantona enlivening them only occasionally. Then they brought on the faithful Brian McClair, who immediately, if unexpectedly, ignited them.

Liverpool had controlled and cantered for much of the match, then after 70 minutes introduced their pounds 3.75m signing Phil Babb from the substitute's bench for his first appearance to help seal a point, after their best attacking efforts had been rebuffed.

Within a minute Andrei Kanchelskis had scored United's first goal; within two more McClair had grabbed the second. Old Trafford roared with relief as their champions closed the gap, for a day at least, on Newcastle United at the top of the Premiership.

It was the Lancashire hot- pot of a match associated with these two titans, champions 27 times between them with Liverpool holding a two-to-one advantage. It was also a Lancashire hotch-potch, frequently tetchy, with five bookings.

As United were frustrated Paul Ince was at his spikiest, posturing and gesturing, while Cantona was fortunate to escape unpunished for a late challenge on Neil Ruddock. Then again, Ruddock had earlier cheekily tampered with the trademark turned-up collar of the Frenchman. A Tory party chairman would have been right to describe it all as exuberance, however.

Ince and his sore knee struggled to cope in midfield, where Lee Sharpe was often bypassed. The assurance of John Barnes and Jan Molby dictated a tempo more suited to them than the expansive momentum that Old Trafford demands and frequently receives from United. The two weightwatchers - making Liverpool's signing of Scales, the pounds 3.5m John, an appropriate one - passed the ball with a pleasing grace that gave their side an unexpected comfort.

Indeed had they taken their chances, they would have been comfortably ahead before trouble came calling. Three times in the first half Peter Schmeichel had to make flying saves from Stig Inge Bjornebye, Ruddock and Steve McManaman, and another, low this time, from Robbie Fowler early in the second. Jamie Redknapp also shaved the top of his bar with a 25-yard drive.

David James was equally admirable at the other end though called upon less often. The shot he held from Cantona was his best save, but mostly United's finishing was a few degrees out as Sharpe, on his weaker right foot, Giggs, with a header, and Ince were all high or wide.

Then the United manager Alex Ferguson brought on McClair for Mark Hughes, one of several struggling, to halt the flow from Molby. His job was soon done for him, however, when the Liverpool manager Roy Evans withdrew the Dane to give Babb a debut in an unfamiliar midfield role.

It still took an error to break the deadlock as Scales, undermining his and Liverpool's good work, attempted a back-header to James that Kanchelskis intercepted and flicked home. McClair, now freed to go forward, then played a neat wall pass with Cantona before steering the ball past James.

'Substitutions are a nightmare for a manager,' said Ferguson. 'I could have been criticised for bringing off Hughes if it hadn't worked out, but it ended up a terrific result for us. McClair is one of those strange players who can be a substitute, he's got that kind of character and can get into the flow of a game straight away.'

Not so Babb, the English's game's most expensive defender. 'We were overrun for a 10- minute spell and I thought it could do with some fresh legs,' said Evans. 'In hindsight, Alex made the right decision and I did not.'

Lucky generals, good generals - there is indeed a fine dividing line, for which a below- par United will be grateful as they seek to stay in touch in the Premiership as the Champions League preoccupies them.

For Liverpool, there should be comfort in a performance that hinted at better times than followed their similar promising start last season. Change is often painful in the short term, as they found out yesterday, but they look equipped to reap longer-term benefits.

(Photograph omitted)